UA’s Electrical Testing Facility Ready to Plug In

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Everyone bows to the god of power — electric power.

And everyone depends on — among other things — a host of electrical engineers to deliver that power without interruption 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

So researchers at the University of Arkansas plan to break ground on the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission this summer. NCREPT is intended to help supply an aging industry with fresh recruits, provide competitive testing facilities to companies and to develop technology that will help update the power grid system across the country.

The university is still reviewing bids for general contractors but plans to complete the 6,000-SF building sometime by the end of the year. The state-of-the-art facility will be at the University of Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville.

The NCREPT is the brainchild of Alan Mantooth and Juan Balda, both professors of electrical engineering at the UA.

The planned facility is, Mantooth admitted, only a national center by self-proclamation. But he notes, there is no other like it in the country, so calling it the “national” center isn’t a stretch.

Other testing facilities that come close to the NCREPT’s planned 6.5 megawatt power capacity running on 15 kilavolts either belong to powerhouse players like General Electric Co. or the government, Balda said. And neither of those entities is usually interested in loaning out facilities for research.

To put the center’s power capacity in perspective, Balda said 6.5 mega watts (or technically 6.5 megavolt amperes) is enough to power about 600 average homes.

But because of a planned regenerative unit that recycles energy and keeps it from being discharged as heat, the center will only pull about 10 percent of that power from Southwestern Electric Power Co., or enough to power about 60 houses.

Mantooth used a different illustration: The center’s capacity will be enough to super-heat the water in a swimming pool instantly, he said.

Need

The idea for the center came to Mantooth in 2003 when a storm in Ohio downed tree branches that eventually led to a cascading blackout across eight northeastern states and in parts of Canada.

The blackout, which occurred on August 14, 2003, affected about 50 million people and caused financial losses of about $6 billion.

The reason? The interconnected power grid that connects electricity generation stations with various end-users is largely controlled by slow-acting electromechanical switches — called fault-current limiters — couldn’t handle the disruption.

After the blackout, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2003, which in turn created the U.S. Department of Energy’s GridWorks initiative, which focuses on research and development to upgrade the power grid.

“You wouldn’t use a 50-year-old computer,” Mantooth said, comparing the grid to the Dell PC on his desk.

Research at the UA on heat-tolerant silicon-carbide power electronics could eventually lead to electronic switches that react as much as 200 times faster than the electromechanical switches in the grid, Mantooth said.

The effect is similar to comparing the flip of a light switch on a wall to a mouse click on a computer, Mantooth said.

Mantooth and others tend to refer to the power grid almost as if it were a living, breathing entity that’s harnessed but not quite controlled.

“Everybody seems to agree that the power systems have served the nation well, but they’re getting to the point that they are taxed,” Balda said.

The power switches being developed at the UA probably won’t have an immediate effect on the power grid in Arkansas, Balda said, but cities like New York are in dire need of upgraded equipment.

Full Power

So far, the engineers have received $1 million from the DOE to seed the center’s development, and the UA has promised to pay for the cost of the building — a little more than $1 million — Mantooth said.

The DOE funds came out of the 2005 fiscal year, and no money was appropriated for the center for 2006, Mantooth said. But he and others at the UA engineering department expect $2.5 million to be appropriated by the DOE in fiscal 2007.

Mantooth guesstimates the center will require a total investment of about $6.5 million over the next three to five years to build, staff and outfit with an ideal set of testing equipment.

Balda said the group hasn’t done a comprehensive study on how much it will cost to keep the center operating, but he estimated it will cost about $150,000 annually.

To keep the lights on at NCREPT the university plans to charge commercial companies a fee for usage of the equipment, offer continuing education to engineers who are already working in the real world and to license technology that is developed at the center.

Balda said that small companies like Alex Lostetter’s Arkansas Power Electronics International Inc. will be able to lease time in the facility to test their equipment, which will give them a competitive advantage.

Both Mantooth and Balda foresee the center as an attraction to companies across the country.

Graying Industry

Another important by-product of the NCREPT for Mantooth and Balda is a point brought up to them from the utilities industry.

Utility companies are facing an aging workforce and are attracting fewer qualified electrical engineering graduates.

Troy Scarbrough is vice president of engineering and operations at Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corp. in Fayetteville and has given Mantooth and Balda real-world feedback on NCREPT.

He said the utilities industry probably doesn’t hold the same romantic allure as, say, the cell phone industry. All indications within his industry are that there will be a real labor shortage in 10 to 15 years, he said.

Ozarks Electric isn’t looking at the same shortage, Scarbrough said, because he’s blessed to be in the backyard of the UA, and he and Mantooth are old college buddies, so he gets good candidates.

“A lot of the new engineers are dealing with three volts or less,” said Roger Bullock, vice president of motor drives for Baldor Electric Co. in Fort Smith.

But there is a real need for engineers who want to work with larger pieces of equipment, he said.

Baldor employs about 250 engineers in various disciplines, he said. The company is also a supporter of NCREPT and is the builder of the regenerative unit that will recycle the center’s power.

Bullock said the company looks to the university for qualified engineers and hopes to continue to grow knowledge-based jobs in the state.

Also, NCREPT will be a place that can provide continuing education to engineers around the country with short courses, Balda said.

“Let’s not forget that our main product here at the university are the students,” Mantooth said.

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